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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Brief Encounter
Cinema, Haymarket      Spring-Autumn 2008

The extraordinarily imaginative Kneehigh Theatre reinvent Noel Coward's classic weepy, using all the magic of theatre to refresh and redefine it.

As with many of their productions, the company's imagination sometimes runs away from them, and not everything works. But give yourself over to the experience, and you'll be carried away to unexpected emotional places.

Performing in an actual cinema (the big one in the Haymarket, just off Piccadilly Circus), the company set the tone immediately, with the lobby redesigned in 1940s decor and ushers in period uniforms (later to act as 'invisible' stagehands).

The staging mixes live action with film sequences, including a censor's certificate and period advertisements.

Does anyone need a reminder? A very respectable middle-class man and woman, both married, meet at a train station cafe, fall in love, and then part, stiff upper lips aquiver, because it's The Right Thing To Do, while around them the cafe staff obliviously lead their broadly comic lives.

Naomi Frederick and Tristan Sturrock play the central couple straight and naturalistically, with a few expressionistic touches I'll mention in a moment.

But adapter-director Emma Rice takes the audacious step of replacing much of the admittedly dated comic side action with songs, drawn from the more obscure pages of the Noel Coward songbook.

At first this seems like a bad idea, unnecessary lily-gilding that threatens the mood. But the songs, and the way the cafe staff perform them, develop the effect of the songs in the musical Cabaret, commenting ironically or sympathetically on the plot, bringing out all the emotion the central characters must perforce underplay.

Even the most hard-hearted among us is drawn into the drama with all the power of what Coward famously dismissed as 'cheap music.'

And, not at all incidentally, one of the evening's pleasures is the opportunity to be introduced or re-introduced to such lovely Coward songs as 'A Room With a View' and 'Go Slow Johnny.'

And so, as hoary as the old chestnut may be, it works its magic once again, catching us up in the all-but-unspoken passions of these small people and making us feel how overpowering the unfamiliar emotions are to them.

As is almost a Kneehigh trademark, not every leap of theatrical invention is successful. The repeated use of filmed waves and surf to indicate passion may be an homage to the censorship-imposed conventions of the time, but it is more than a bit heavy-handed, almost to the point of becoming self-parody.

I've seen the gimmick of live actors entering a film done better (They get the sizes wrong here), though if you've never seen it before, it still has some magic.

And perhaps you have to have seen other Kneehigh productions to spot that having the lovers ascend in a brief aerial ballet at their moment of highest ecstasy is a familiar trope for them and not quite as unique an effect as it may seem.

But these are cavils. As with most Kneehigh shows, there is more true theatrical imagination on that stage than in any ten conventional West End shows put together.

And even if a few ideas misfire, far more works - and works in ways you don't expect and have no defences against - than doesn't.

Put yourself in their hands, for a unique and very happy theatrical experience.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Brief Encounter - Kneehigh at Haymarket Cinema 2008

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